New Yorker awaits new trial in Peru: rights activist or terrorist?
Associated Press -- 28 October 2000
by Monte Hayes
LIMA, Peru - Lori Berenson was exposed to causes and protests as a baby, when her father would strap her to his back and head off with her mother to take part in rallies against the Vietnam War.
In her early teens she volunteered in New York soup kitchens, worked telephones in a blood bank, appeared in a CARE television ad for starving children.
Eventually her passion would plunge the young woman into a Peruvian prison, and groping for answers to why things had ended so badly, she would tell her mother: "Ever since I did that commercial, I am absolutely haunted by visions of starving children."
But before she reached Peru, Berenson took other steps that would put her on a dangerous road. While studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she volunteered with a U.S. organization working in solidarity with the leftist insurgency during the height of El Salvador's civil war in the late 1980s.
She ended up serving as private secretary to El Salvador's top rebel commander during negotiations that achieved peace in 1992.
In late 1994, Berenson moved on to Peru, a much bigger nation of 26 million people where the revolutionary fires still burned and where hundreds of thousands of children go hungry every day.
Her experience in El Salvador had not prepared her for the more sinister world of Peruvian politics. A year after her arrival, counterinsurgency police hauled her off a bus along with the wife of guerrilla leader Nestor Cerpa. Within weeks hooded military judges convicted Berenson of being a rebel leader herself and sentenced her to life in prison without parole for "treason to the fatherland."
Now, after nearly five years in harsh mountain prisons, she is to have a new trial, and although she could still get 20 years or more, Peru's political upheaval may have the indirect result of freeing her much sooner.
Lori Berenson is 30 now, a bespectacled woman with long brown hair, fond of large, dangling earrings and self-confident in her speech and body language. She converses in flawless Spanish. According to a prison psychologist, Norma Guevara, she watches her diet, avoiding fattening food. She sings and can play five musical instruments, including an Andean flute.
Her new trial in a civilian court will be on a lesser charge of collaborating with the MRTA, the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement.
The MRTA is best known for invading the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima in December 1996 and taking hundreds of hostages to exchange for prisoners. Police say the MRTA carried out that raid after a similar attack planned against Congress a year earlier was thwarted.
They say Berenson collaborated in the Congress plot -- that she used press credentials from two left-leaning U.S. publications to gain entrance to the legislative building, with Cerpa's wife posing as a photographer, and gather information for the takeover. They say that Berenson shared a house she rented with more than a dozen MRTA combatants in an upscale Lima neighborhood and that the house contained an arsenal of weapons.
Hours after Berenson's arrest on Nov. 30, 1995, police attacked the house and captured 14 guerrillas after an all-night gun battle.
Berenson called herself "a political prisoner and a prisoner of conscience" in a letter last January to prison authorities. "In my life I have tried to be faithful to my principles and morals and to do what my conscience tells me," she wrote.
She denies being a terrorist. In court Berenson testified she had never seen the weapons cache and had little contact with the young men who used the upper floor of the house. She said she did not know they were rebels training to take over Congress.
"I mind my own business," she told CBS television this month by way of explanation.
Mark and Rhoda Berenson have been their daughter's only link from prison to the outside world. They have taken early retirement from their jobs as professors in New York City-area colleges to dedicate themselves full-time to her cause. They characterize their daughter as a human rights activist and fledgling free-lance journalist who was swept up in the government's crackdown on leftist rebels and unjustly convicted.
Others, including some who are working to free her, say that picture is incomplete.
"She thinks the MRTA's cause is justified," said Ronald Greenwald, a New York rabbi who has been involved in negotiating prisoner swaps around the world.
He has visited Berenson four times and is working behind the scenes to get the charge reduced to "apology for terrorism," which carries a minimum prison sentence of six years.
"I told her: 'I don't consider you a saint, Lori. I mean, you hung around with some pretty bad people.' She came back with her ideological philosophy of repression," Greenwald said in an interview in Lima during his last visit in September.
Contradicting Berenson's court testimony, Greenwald said Berenson knew full well that she was dealing with MRTA rebels but had rationalized her situation to tailor it to her belief in nonviolence.
"She knew the MRTA was a a tough group and she knew there were terrorists in the group. But I don't think she would ever go along with a raid," he said.
The MRTA is blamed for, at most, 200 of the 30,000 deaths in Peru's political violence from 1980 until the mid 1990s. Most of the victims were rural people caught in the cross fire between the army and the much larger Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a communist insurgency.
For much of the 1980s the MRTA had a certain Robin Hood aura compared to the savage violence of the Shining Path. In its initial years it was best known for hijacking grocery trucks and distributing food among the poor.
But in the 1990s the MRTA turned to extortion and kidnapping -- and money became more important than ideology. When a popular businessman was left to starve to death in an underground cell even though his family had paid the ransom, public sentiment turned against the MRTA.
The MRTA's biggest headline-grabber came 13 months after Berenson's arrest when Cerpa led 13 guerrillas into the Japanese ambassador's reception for hundreds of Lima's elite.
The rebels held 72 hostages for four months in early 1997, demanding freedom for hundreds of their imprisoned comrades. President Alberto Fujimori finally ordered a bold rescue that saved all but one of the hostages. All of the rebels were killed.
Lori Berenson's name was No. 3 on the list of prisoners whose freedom Cerpa was demanding.
One of the hostages was Bolivia's former ambassador to Peru, Jorge Gumucio. He and Cerpa talked often about the MRTA's terms for freeing the captives, he said in an interview with The Associated Press in La Paz, Bolivia's capital.
"It was very important to Cerpa that Berenson get out. He indicated that she was not a leader but was used like other militants for specific tasks and had collaborated with Cerpa's wife. It was important to get her out."
Asked by CBS News' "48 Hours" program why her name was so high on Cerpa's list if she wasn't an MRTA member, Berenson replied: "I actually don't know. I'm not a follower. I'm not a comrade."
Greenwald says the reason was obvious.
"She had a value to them because she was an American," he said. "Her value wasn't because they needed her in the leadership of the MRTA. They needed the world to know that there's an American who was part of their cause. That gave them legitimacy."
After her summary trial in January 1996, Berenson was imprisoned in Yanamayo, a penitentiary for hard-core terrorists on a bleak plateau 12,700 feet high in the Andes near the Bolivian border. In October 1998 she was moved to Socobayo, another mountain prison but at a lower elevation, where she was kept in solitary confinement until she transferred in August to a less rigorous Lima penitentiary on the coast.
Her cells in the mountain prisons had no electricity or window panes to keep out the icy winds. Her eyesight worsened from reading in the gloom. Her hands turned blue and swelled up "like boxing gloves," in her mother's words, from washing them in near-freezing water. She had breathing and stomach problems.
The experience only seemed to toughen her resolve, said the Rev. Hubert Lansseurs, a Roman Catholic priest who visits inmates imprisoned on terrorism charges.
"She didn't show depression." he said. "She was hard. Very hard."
It was El Salvador, which she visited twice as a student in the late 1980s, that played a critical role in pushing her toward radical politics.
On one trip a Salvadoran student in whose house she was living was tortured and murdered by a death squad and his body dumped by the road.
"This clearly affected her and solidified her commitment to social justice," said Kristen Gardner, her roommate at MIT, where she studied anthropology and music before dropping out to take up the Salvadoran cause.
Charlie MacMartin worked with Berenson in 1988-89 in the United States in Salvadoran solidarity organizations and traveled with her in a delegation to El Salvador with the Boston-based Student Central American Network.
"My take on Lori was that she was neither a saint nor a wild-eyed crazy. She was just like thousands of us at the time, worried about U.S. involvement in El Salvador and the policies of the Reagan era," he said.
"She struck me as being very principled and into peace and justice."
She moved to Nicaragua in 1990 and began working with Salvadoran war refugees. Soon she was the private secretary of Leonel Gonzalez, head of the largest political wing of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, the rebel army.
Gonzalez, today a member of El Salvador's Congress, says he was surprised to hear Berenson had been accused of helping plan the Congress attack.
"She was not a combatant. She wasn't trained for that," he said in an interview with The Associated Press in San Salvador, the Salvadoran capital. "It doesn't fit with the picture in my mind of the Lori I knew here -- a sensitive person, a very cordial person, a person who showed solidarity."
He said he has corresponded with Berenson since she was imprisoned and "her letters have impressed me with her sense of conviction."
For years the State Department pushed for a fair, civilian trial, saying Berenson was denied due process in the military tribunal. Her case soured Peruvian relations with the Clinton administration, which has been increasingly critical of the iron-fisted Fujimori since he won a third five-year term in May elections marred by allegations of fraud.
In August, in a surprise move, Peru's top military court overturned Berenson's life sentence, paving the way for an open civilian trial and a chance for Berenson to clear her name.
Many analysts believe that Fujimori, having long touted Berenson's imprisonment as proof of his toughness on terrorism, was now trying to appease the Americans. Her father agrees.
"Peru has used her and kicked her around like a political football," Berenson said in a telephone interview from New York. "She was imprisoned for her beliefs, not for any actions or deeds. Lori's case is totally political. Peru has known she is innocent from day one."
The Berensons are encouraged by Fujimori's stunning announcement in September that he was stepping down next year because of a bribery scandal involving his feared spy chief, who had helped him gain political control of the courts.
They say it reinforces their contention that Peru's legal system is unfair. "The corruption has been exposed," Rhoda Berenson said.
Berenson's supporters in the United States view her as a well-meaning activist who got sucked into a deeply unfair legal system.
But many Peruvians think differently.
Fed up with insurgencies that have bloodied the country for years, they are unsympathetic to her claim of innocence or her family's plea for a fair trial. Newspapers and TV stations freely call her a terrorist, and polls show most Peruvians agree.
For them, her image was sealed when police presented her to the news media in January 1996. Sounding outraged and unrepentant, she shouted: "There are no criminal terrorists in the MRTA! It is a revolutionary movement!"
In her CBS interview she again refused to condemn the MRTA even though she insisted she was not a terrorist.
"I don't see why I have to denounce the MRTA," she said.
Juan Domingo Nunez wishes she would. The rebels threatened to kill Nunez and kidnap his wife, pregnant with their first child, if he did not pay protection money for his popular steakhouse.
For two years he had to wear a bulletproof vest whenever he left his house. His restaurant was fire-bombed three days after Christmas in 1989. Each morning he had to drive out of his garage at high speed, pointing a .38-caliber revolver out the window of his car.
"Why did this senorita have to come to Peru to participate in a Che Guevara-style revolutionary struggle?" he said. "Why didn't she do it in her own country? Why didn't she try to help the blacks in the ghettos and the Latin minorities who are exploited as farm workers?"
In an interview broadcast on Pacifica Radio in early September, Lori Berenson was asked what she will do when she finally gets out of prison.
"I have dedicated my adult years to social justice issues, and I do not plan to stop doing that," she said.
Martin Belaunde, president of the Lima Bar Association, thinks Berenson will be free before long. He says her case has turned into "judicial hot potato" for the government.
"I think within a short time we will see Senorita Berenson receive a minor sentence," he said. "It will be covered by the time she has served, and Senorita Berenson will return to the United States to write her memoirs and recount her terrible experiences in Peru."